– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
KATY, Texas — For Nicholls head coach Austin Claunch, a Cinderella finish to his first go-round in coaching the Colonels in the Southland Conference Tournament is now just 40 minutes away. From there, the Colonels might end up being a Cinderella in the Big Dance a week later.
The top-seeded Colonels used a dominant performance in the paint to help pull away from No. 4 Northwestern State 88-76 in the first semifinal of the 2021 Southland Conference Tournament at the Leonard E. Merrell Center on Friday night. Guard Kevin Johnson scored a game-high 23 points for the Colonels, who also used a 48-26 edge in paint points to win their 16th game in their last 17 contests.
“They rose to the occasion,” said Claunch, who coached in his first tournament contest after being hired as head coach after the 2018 season and not being able to participate in the last two editions of the tournament. “It’s hard to win any tournament game, and for us to pull out and finish the way we did, that was great to see.”
The teams were tied with just under seven minutes to play before Nicholls guard and Third Team All-Southland forward Najee Garvin scored on a layup to snap a 67-67 tie and give the Colonels the lead for good. Garvin, who scored 14, was one of four players who scored in double figures for the Colonels.
Johnson had a superb all-around game, making four three-pointers while also coming up with three rebounds, three assists and four steals.
“Coach told us when he came in that he was going to mold our team into a championship team,” Johnson said. “I feel like this year he put us in the best position possible”
For the Colonels to make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998, they’ll have to get through another hot team in the Southwest, the No. 2 seed Wildcats of Abilene Christian University, who were dominant from start to finish in a 93-71 victory over the No. 6 seed Lamar Cardinals in the second semifinal. The reigning conference champions from 2019 shot 61 percent from the field in the first half and built a 52-29 lead at the intermission.
First Team All-Southland center Kolton Kohl and forward Airion Simmons each scored 14 points in the first half for the Wildcats, with all of Simmons points coming off the bench.
“Coach was telling us to have a chip on our shoulders,” said Simmons, who also hit three 3-pointers in the contest.
The Wildcats, who were not able to defend their title last season due to the pandemic, did not play Nicholls during the regular season, but the teams have won 30 of their last 33 games combined and should produce a classic Southland final on Saturday.
*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from Friday night’s action, with all photos taken by Houston-area photographer Jamar Carrington. After clicking on the first photo to enlarge the picture, make sure to press the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the rest of the pictures. There are currently 18 pictures in total.